The first (1993) edition of Charles Inouye’s prior volume of Izumi Kyoka’s stories was simply called “Three Tales of Mystery and Imagination.” When it was reprinted, however, only three years later, it was retitled “Japanese Gothic Tales.” Now, a decade later, we have a second collection that from the first is identified as “More Gothic Tales.”
This reflects, among other things, the identification of Japan with the recent wave of gothic-pop, as evidenced by horror manga and the makes and remakes of such would-be alarming movies as “Ring” and “The Grudge.” Gothic has been resuscitated and now walks the land as brand-name entertainment.
This happens during times of uneasiness. The end of the 1800s, when the Gothic romance was at its height, saw the awful evidences of the Industrial Revolution. This despoilment inspired popular retreat from the achievements of science, industry, from the entire “enlightenment,” into a world of fantasy, mock-menace and entertaining horror.
The revival of the genre worldwide now indicates a like attempt to counter a reality seen as menacing. Gothic offers decorative exits, spooky happenings, clanking specters — diversions from horrors that are real, entertainments that Milton, in his own gothic-drama “Comus,” described as all “calling shapes and beckoning shadows dire.”
During a time rendered distressing by AIDS, unilateral wars, endless political confrontations, and collapse threatening both the weather and the economy, the rush to safely imagined disaster can be seen as an inoculation against the real thing.
The reasons for the identification with Japan (gothic manga, films, rock concerts, costumes) are various, but one of them is that ever since the Meiji Era accepted things Western there has been a reaction. If Europe saw the industrial revolution as a menace, think how Japan must have initially viewed this wave of Western materialism.
One of those who reacted most spectacularly was Kyoka (1873-1939), a writer who saw the certainties of old Japan swept quite away to be replaced by the doubts of the West.
One of the results was a lifetime of phobias (food, bacteria, dogs, thunder) and the other was the recreation of his lost Tokugawa world in a series of haunting plays and stories.
While his contemporaries mostly climbed onto the Western-powered naturalistic bandwagon, Kyoka remained behind, lovingly crafting his ghost stories after the models of the old gesaku, those purposely frivolous “playful compositions” that Charles Inouye sees as “a localized discourse of monstrosity and metamorphosis.”
These stories not only have the amorphous form of the old tales, they are also filled with references to them. “A Song by Lantern Light (Uta andon),” 1910, the first of the stories in this new collection, can be read as a parallel to Jippensha Ikku’s “Shank’s Mare (Tokaido dochu hizakurige),” 1802-1809, one of the most famous of the picaresque gesaku.
In the same way, the second of the three tales included in this new collection, “A Quiet Obsession (Mayu kakushi no rei),” 1924, parallels not only the Ikku tales but also the narratives of the more ghostly of the noh plays.
“The Heartvine (Rukoshinso),” 1939, Kyoka’s last story and the last in this new collection, is a contemplation of the dead, something it shares with much Tokugawa literature; something that appeals to us now because, as Inouye has noticed, “the pursuit of the dead is as beautiful as it is sorrowful.”
And in its strident gothic form this pursuit is now seen everywhere, on the page, the screen, the tube. The Japanese version, so assured, so chilling, so sentimental and (according to Donald Keene) so “impossibly melodramatic,” is now a favored flavor, and this is perhaps the reason that we are allowed another collection of such gothic tales in which to indulge ourselves.
Inouye is the finest of mediums through which to receive the author’s message. Not only has he given us the most sensitive translations, he is also the author of the only critical biography of Kyoka in English (1998). In his version these gothic tales speak their dubious truths with beauty, longing, and a winningly impossible kind of certitude.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.